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No to unilateralism

CiU and ERC want to break with legality and use a referendum to ratify what they have already decided

It did not take long for the parties supporting Catalan premier Artur Mas to underscore their own desire to turn Catalonia into a "new state," one that would be founded on a clash of legitimacies. Despite the text of the Spanish Constitution, which proclaims that "national sovereignty belongs to the Spanish people, from whom emanate the powers of the state," the Convergence and Union bloc (CiU) and the Republican Left (ERC) have plans for the Catalan Assembly to declare the Catalan people "a sovereign political and legal entity."

What they are proposing not only represents a break with the constitution, but it also makes the right to decide a moot point — nothing more than a step prior to secession that already seems decided upon, and which, considering the kind of statement that the Catalan Assembly is supposed to approve, would simply be ratified through a plebiscite.

It seems hard to believe that in the Europe of the 21st century there are still responsible political parties considering unilateral initiatives of this nature. Artur Mas has been locked in undisguised conflict with the central government ever since Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy rejected the "fiscal pact" he proposed, but that does not justify a breach of the law. There are no circumstances that can justify the speed with which the parties holding up the Catalan government are dealing with this issue. It becomes even less understandable when these parties combined count on just 71 deputies in the new Catalan Assembly, compared to the 84 deputies who voted in favor of a popular referendum last September — a numerical difference that reveals their fragility.

The Catalan Socialist Party, which abstained from the referendum vote, and the green party ICV, which voted in favor of it, both reject this new project for a unilateral declaration of independence. Meanwhile, the conservative Popular Party and Ciutadans, neither of which supported the referendum, have increased their presence in the regional house following the latest elections.

The pro-sovereignty faction of CiU wants to break with several centuries of history and coexistence with other Spaniards, in an attempt to conceal their loss of support at the polls on November 25, when votes for CiU and ERC combined did not even reach half of all ballots cast that day.

It is possible that such a declaration of unilateral sovereignty would remain nothing more than a political statement with no legal effects, but that would not reduce the mistrust that Spaniards and Europeans feel with regard to authorities who act without concern for the rule of law and express a desire to build themselves a made-to-order state. Constitutional Spain is the result of a lot of deal-making, and that has also been the core method in the European community; it is the basis that explains the European Union. To break with the basic principles of negotiation and consensus-seeking is a road that leads to nowhere.

It is another issue entirely as to whether there may be a significant majority of Catalans who want to decide on their relationship with the rest of Spain. Certainly, the rules of the game for any constitutionally meaningful referendum need to be agreed to within the bounds of the law. If Artur Mas plans to visit the king and the head of government simply to present them with a unilateral declaration of Catalan sovereignty, he can save himself the trip, since it would only show the absence of any will to negotiate and a desire for confrontation.

The citizens of Catalonia must be fully informed about the consequences of such a decision, without any rhetorical subterfuge to cover up the rupture it entails, and without shaking the carrot of non-existent European support for their plan. The EU already has its fair share of problems and is not going to be overjoyed at the prospect of secession within the euro zone. At the same time, the Rajoy administration knows that national parties oppose the unilateralism of nationalists and pro-sovereignty parties, and this makes it strong enough not to let itself get dragged into confrontations or close itself off to talks.

Civilized societies can be distinguished from those that are not because they stress negotiation over acts of force.

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